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Has wine gone bad?


#1

A rather provocative title for an otherwise interesting (long) article in The Guardian on Natural Wine.

The debate about Natural Wine has raged in wine-writing circles and the trade for a long time, but you know it is getting more ‘mainstream’ when the issues are raised in national newspapers in detail (as opposed to just sensationalist headlines).

The article does some good work to explain the history and philosophy behind the movement (as opposed to ‘category’) although it still makes some dubious statements such as this:

Once you know what to look for, natural wines are easy to spot: they tend to be smellier, cloudier, juicier, more acidic and generally truer to the actual taste of grape than traditional wines. In a way, they represent a return to the core elements that made human beings fall in love with wine when we first began making it, around 6,000 years ago.

There is a lot one could argue with in these two sentences alone.

However, as an article that brings together issues of pesticide use, the self-referential trouble with ‘typicity’ in AOC systems, the role of reaching a new type of ‘millenial’ consumer, and a LOT more, this is a good place to start.

What do you make of it? I’d be very interested to hear, irrespective of what you thought about Natural Wine before reading, whether you are:

  • … more likely to seek out, and “experience” a Natural Wine
  • … less likely to spend my money on a potentially flawed wine

0 voters

and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this as my wine-writing friends are getting a bit excited (for different reasons) about it


#2

I think jay rayner summed it up best with a comparison to the organic movement but i would add the wonky veg aspect.

All i can see is that the natural wine shop near me is doing a roaring trade!

Maybe it’s one for the market to decide?


#3

Interesting piece - I too winced at the paragraph @robert_mcintosh highlighted; but, rhetorically as well as qualitatively, the whole category/movement is something of a minefield… overall I thought it was a decent primer with some really fascinating source opinions on different sides of the debate.

I actually attended an extraordinary ‘Introduction to Natural Wine’ tasting recently, hosted (obviously) by the natty-wine enthusiast and Norwegian black-metal singer, Kristian ‘Gaahl’ Espedal - pictured below in his work attire.

Need to write up my notes and share them on here soon - he showed us some fascinating wines, and it was quite an evening…!


#4

I find it hard to resist the allure of a natural wine bar. I like the philosophy, the story, the different taste and (dare say it) the thrill. It is a total minefield with unstable wines, bottle variation and no reliable controls in place as a consumer. With bottles tending to be expensive, I rarely take the punt on something to bring home. However, give me a cool setting, a knowledgeable and passionate evangelist behind the bar, and limit the risk to one glass with a bit of charcuterie on the side, and I’m in.

On the other hand, I seem to be less and less interested in drinking much conventional wine on an evening out. If I want a nice wine (I do, I do!), I’ve got plenty at home from which to choose. Between the standard of technical winemaking (i.e. consistency) and my understanding of what I want to try, my hit rate is pretty good. The cost of the odd disappointment is absorbed by the savings of not paying hospitality industry markup.

I did not reply to the poll because my position is unchanged, but excellent article. Thank you for sharing.


#5

My experience of Natural wine has been of the good, the bad and the ugly. Have had awful oxidised wine as well as lovely fruity stuff.


#6

A good read, @robert_mcintosh, and actually well informed and researched.

When Robert Parker was in his pomp, it was hard not to notice the corresponding rise of the “international” wine, as the article says. I used to wring my hands in despair, but also wonder what the countervailing movement would be. Because it seemed pretty inevitable that the more this sort of thing siezed the market, the more likely it seemed that action would beget reaction.

Well, I guess the Natural Wine movement was born in such circumstances. Whilst it is fair to say that many fine wines meet all the characteristics of being natural wines, they are not presented that way. What I notice with increasing dismay is that the whole Natural Wine scene is becoming yet another identity movement. And like the big identity politics scene in the USA (where this sort of thing emerged from), the warring parties to a large extent define themselves by opposition to the other one.

“To hell with that!” is my immediate response, followed rapidly by “A plague on both your houses!”

I am old enough to remember the sort of wines at the bottom end of the market back in the late sixties. If you think that current bottom-end stuff is bad, then believe me, it’s an order of magnitude better. Of course, science can be used for good or ill, but arm-waving comments about some mythical past when wines were wonderfully redolent of something-or-other merely appeals to a maudlin pseudo-nostalgic sentimentality. Local wines have always been a mixed bag - you either took your chances, or sought guidance.

There are many good points made by proponents of natural wines, such as our restricted notion of typicity. Anyone who has tasted their way round any wine appellation will know that in practice the trade often focusses on a subset of what is available, assuming I guess that their customers may get confused if they go too broad. But the irony is that in reacting to loss of typicity through “internationalization”, they have obliterated typicity through a barrage of weirdness, off-ferments, mousiness and oxidation.

I am as much up for new wine experiences as the next man or woman. I love some natural wines and applaud the pioneering spirit in which they were conceived. There’s just too much dross out there though, and Doug Wregg’s comments about everything now being possible are strongly reminiscent of the student movements of 1968. You may wish to draw your own conclusions about what actually transpired from that.


#7

Ah, that Bard. He had foreseen it all!

But seriously… Some of your arguments echo my feelings down to a tee. What I smell is not just the oxidation and off aromas, but also a whiff of a fad. You put it better by calling it 'yet another identity movement '.
I, too, always become suspicious when arguments about some mythical past or halcyon days we all need to hark back to start to surface. Somehow it always ends up sounding alarmingly like the call of the fundamentalist.
And if the proof is ultimately in the pudding, then I am yet to be convinced by natural wine.


#8

A few years ago we tasted a lovely Languedoc red made ‘with minimal intervention’ and on the back of that bought six bottles. Upon opening the first we discovered it was frizzante, unusual in a still red. The second was similar so we pushed the cork back into the bottle and took the whole half case back to the Wine merchant. They werent too happy when we explained our dissatisfaction with the Wine and were quite disbelieving. So we suggested they try the open bottle. At the merest touch the cork flew out across the room. We didn’t have to work too hard for a refund :smiley: which we graciously spent on more wine.


#9

I’m still very much on the fence when it comes to “natural” wine. I’ll admit I haven’t tasted lots and lots but of all the wines I have tasted I would say about 60% haven’t been an experience I wish to repeat . There is no doubt that there are some greats out there but for now I am still pretty sceptical about “truly” natural wine and would rather not take the chance on wasting money. However, I am happy to try a certain wine based in a recommendation from a trusted party .


#10

I feel one of those rambling (but not angry) rants coming on I’m afraid.

Thanks for throwing this one in, @robert_mcintosh. I had already read the article (I’m a huge fan of the Guardian Long Read series, and this one was of course irresistible!) I thought that as a general introduction to the debate, it’s pretty good, a few dodgy sentences notwithstanding. The writer could also have interviewed some more establishment people for balance (such as Jancis, or our very own @PierreM, or Tim Atkin, for example), rather than relying so heavily on the bloke from 67 Pall Mall.

I voted that I would try a natural wine, but only because I am willing to learn and experience new things, but it’s hardly likely to bring me round to the natural wine cause. It is a cause, and it is a movement. Not all causes or movements have a single leader. But they do have a binding philosophy. Converts who deny this are being disingenuous, and don’t know their history, and they’re doing it because they’re trying to avoid politics, but they are being the very essence of political.

I do like @Ghost-of-Mr-Tallis’s insight that it’s yet another contribution to the desperate rabbit hole of identity politics (super post all round, @Ghost-of-Mr-Tallis, actually) . And I do like @danchaq’s approach to limiting the risk to one glass - I’m with you on that. Although charcuterie - even locally-sourced, artisanal, small-production, high animal welfare standards charcuterie - is quite antithetical to the natural wine err… philosophy.

My humble view, for what it’s worth, is not terribly favourable to the natural wine movement. I do support aspirations to authenticity, and I do think the establishment needs challenging. For sure. But as it happens (something the article doesn’t cover nearly enough), many of the principles of respect for the soil and organic farming and even the bonkers pseudoscience of biodynamics are actually much more widespread than people realise. I’ve lost count of the number of wines that don’t declare themselves to be organic and/or biodynamic and are in fact those very things. Many winemakers have told me, “our wines are organic / we converted years ago to the principles of organic farming / we practice biodynamic farming, but we don’t put it on the label”. The winemakers just don’t like to be part of any wacky movements, while (without contradiction) buying some of their values. They just don’t want these words on their labels, and/or they don’t want the hassle required to achieve organic certification.

Finally, and call me a stickler, but words matter deeply, and I won’t stop complaining about the utterly misleading of the word “natural”. It’s divisive, disingenuous, misleading and unthinking. I know we can’t stop it - it’s stuck now. I’ve heard Jay Rayner rant about this, but entirely from the opposite angle. I’m on his side, but coming at it from the other end. His argument (heard on a podcast) was that everything is natural (because all human activity is natural), and that therefore the term was redundant. However, if this is true, then there is nothing artificial in the world, and the commonly and reasonably held view that human interference in the world (i.e. manipulation of nature to achieve something that if “left on its own”, nature would not produce) is artifice, would not be defensible. Human intervention, while natural to humans, is what artifice is to nature, because it puts things together that nature on its own would never do. Nature seeks entropy, and humans (pointlessly) are constantly battling against entropy. Wine is an excellent example of artifice. All wine is artificial. But there are degrees of artificiality, obviously and clearly.

The lowest intervention wine, while still being recognisably wine, is what interests me. And it is clear that sulphur is one of those interventions (along with planting in rows, tending to vines during the year, pruning, picking grapes at the “right” time, physically carrying them somewhere, putting them in some storage that nature does not grow anywhere, bottling, labelling, distributing, selling, etc. etc.) that we have discovered to be essential to maintaining the integrity, stability, ageworthiness, and basically err… drinkability and deliciousness of wine. So that’s where my tolerance ends - with sulphur. Remove that, and I’m really struggling to be interested. Because 90% of the sulphur-free wines I’ve had have been disgusting and rancid and cloudy and fizzy filth, and believe me, I have an open mind and am interested in tasting and smelling almost everything.


#11

Completely agree, and certainly couldn’t have put it better. I’ve had many delicious biodynamic/organic/lutte raisonnée/low intervention wines. But I’ve never had a single pleasant wine made without the use of sulphur. They’re all “prune juice mixed with sparkling water that’s gone a bit flat” or “lager left in a glass for a couple of days”. Yuck.

And although people go on and on about the fact that “there is no proper definition of natural wines”, in my experience, most people using that term are either (a) referring to wine without added sulphur, or (b) not really sure what they’re referring to, they just know that natural wine is “a thing”.

Caveat: I can imagine that a non-sulphured wine could taste nice the moment when/just before it is bottled at the winery itself, but am yet to experience this!


#12

Total agreement, @ricard and @Mooble . The funny thing is that the no-sulphur movement arrived later, but gradually seems to have taken control. Well, almost - there are still some Natural Wines that have reasonable added sulphur.

I posted a tasting note a couple of weeks ago on a no-added sulphur wine which was completely oxidised. The original wine was good - I tried it from a new bottle at the winery. But if it’s not going to hold up for more than a few months, then why bother other than to buy a couple of bottles for immediate drinking?


#13

Oh yes, if you align the two processes it is easy to see how you’d come to that conclusion.

Which actually is a very good point about the whole movement… As many of us who’ve been paying attention to the world lately may already have surmised: stories are more compelling than facts.


#14

Impeccably put!


#15

Brilliant observation, @danchaq, and one I learnt to appreciate in my work!
Ask family members to relate a memory and you get as many versions as there are family members. Nothing to do with facts, everything to do with stories.


#16

… … that is to say, if you’re a girl. :wink::wink:


#17

Ha ha! :+1::grinning:
Though, in my experience men can come up with some creative stories of their own :wink:


#18

They certainly can!

(I’ve just deleted a reference to politics…)


#19

Agreed. And funnily enough I had to stop and leave my political reference off as well :unamused:


#20

As Mark Twain said “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” :face_with_raised_eyebrow: